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United States Expansion, The Indian Removal Act

Civilized Tribes, Southern state governments, President Jackson, Native American resistance, President James Monroe

With the expansion of the white agricultural frontier came the final blows to Native American independence east of the Mississippi. In New York, the once mighty Iroquois were limited to reservations near the new towns of Buffalo and Syracuse; many of the Iroquois moved to Canada. The Shawnee, who had led Native American resistance in the Northwest Territory until 1815, were scattered. Many of the most defiant members moved to Canada. Others relocated to Missouri, then to Mexican territory in east Texas or to eastern Kansas.

In the South the 60,000 remaining Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole were pressured by the national government to sell away most of their land at pennies per acre. Legislation passed in 1819 provided small amounts of government money to train southern Native Americans in plow agriculture and Christianity on their reduced lands. The plan took hold among many of them, and whites began calling them the Five Civilized Tribes. But even as these efforts continued, settlers moved onto lands that Native Americans had not ceded while the federal government looked the other way. In his final annual message to Congress in 1824, President James Monroe recommended that the indigenous peoples who remained in the east be removed to new lands west of the Mississippi.

The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations rejected the idea of removal and insisted that the national government live up to the treaties that guaranteed them what was left of their territory. At the same time, Southern state governments insisted that they and not the federal government had jurisdiction over Native American lands within their borders. The claim reinforced southern notions of states’ rights; it also held the promise of more Native American land for settlers.

The situation reached a crisis in Georgia, where Governor George Troup extended state jurisdiction to Native American lands and began giving the lands to poor whites by means of a lottery in 1825. Troup also sent state surveyors onto Creek lands and warned President John Quincy Adams not to interfere with this exercise of state authority. Faced with this threatening situation the Creek and the Cherokee reorganized themselves as political nations, stripping local chiefs of power and giving it to national councils. In 1827 the Cherokee nation declared itself a republic with its own government, courts, police, and constitution.

By 1830 the situation had become a crisis. New president Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee plantation owner and a famous fighter of Native Americans, refused to exercise federal jurisdiction over Native American affairs, allowing southern states to find their own solutions. The Cherokee took the state of Georgia to court, and in 1832, in the case of Worcester v. Georgia, John Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, ruled that Georgia’s extension of its authority over Cherokee land was unconstitutional. President Jackson simply refused to enforce the decision, allowing southern states to continue to encroach on Native American lands.

In the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Congress—with Jackson’s blessing—offered Native American peoples east of the Mississippi federal land to the west, where the United States government had the authority to protect them. Many of them accepted. Then in 1838, Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, sent the U.S. Army to evict 18,000 to 20,000 Cherokee remaining in the South and move them to what is today Oklahoma. In all, 4,000 Native Americans died on the march that became known as the Trail of Tears. Jackson, who more than any other person was responsible for this removal policy, argued, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?” Again, the white empire of land and liberty came at the expense of other races.



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